China and the World

Out of Africa

Why African traders have made a beeline for China

China and Africa: improving ties

Despite news that it will soon be possible to use mobile phones in-flight, it is still almost second nature for most passengers to shut down their handsets in the departure lounge.

But how about having to switch off 250 of them? This is about the number of phones that African traders can squeeze into an economy class luggage entitlement. No doubt it leads to a lot of rule breaking on hand-carry weight too, which is something to be aware of during any turbulence on flights leaving Guangzhou and Hong Kong for final destinations on the African continent.

The trade in handsets is a topic that has interested Gordon Mathews, a Hong Kong academic who has studied the city’s somewhat infamous Chungking Mansions (a labyrinthine collection of trading counters, curry houses, moneychangers and backpacker hostels under a single roof on bustling Nathan Road in Kowloon).

Mathews reckons that the 90 African handset dealers working out of the building could be providing up to 10 million (or 20%) of the continent’s mobile phones. Although a little down-at-heel in comparison to the glitzier buildings in Hong Kong’s Central business district, Chungking Mansions turns out to be a major trade conduit between China and African consumers.

Chinese activity on the African continent has come in for extensive comment in recent days, to coincide with Hu Jintao’s visit to four African capitals. The newspapers estimate that there are more than a million Chinese now working in Africa. But Mathew’s research points to the other end of the relationship – the increasing number of African immigrants arriving in the east.

Evan Osnos, writing in the New Yorker, thinks there could be a quarter of a million Africans now living within Chinese borders. The largest concentration – the 20,000 primarily west African immigrants living in Guangzhou – make up the biggest foreign group in the city. New arrivals head for community networks to seek the support of a ‘patron’ to help them find their feet. In Guangzhou this has led to immigrants residing in an area near the expressway.

In Yiwu, a city in Zhejiang province promoting itself as sourcing hub, the African community is more likely to arrive from the Mahgreb region of northern Africa. The China Daily thinks there are now at least 250 African “head offices” in the city.

Most Africans arrive as traders, hoping to deal in cheap manufactured goods that they can then ship back to Africa. Clothes, shoes and illegal DVDs are high on the list. Jiang Ganglong, a manager at one of the malls in Guangzhou housing African businesses, says it typically takes around four years to establish an enduring trading franchise. Successful traders, says Jiang, “have integrity and do things the Chinese way.”

Much of the business is conducted at the margin – in terms of both cost and legality. A large section of the trading community is working illegally. For example, Osnos reports that the Guangzhou authorities are concerned at the increase of “triple illegal persons” – those for whom it was illegal to enter China, illegal to reside there, and illegal to work there too.

Contact with local Chinese is mostly limited to business. The cultural disconnects are significant; many locals have minimal knowledge of Africa, aware only of its history of poverty and exploitation.

Obama’s election to the US presidency may have at least widened the debate, as has news that his Kenyan half-brother Mark Ndesandjo lives in Shenzhen. But Ndesandjo – who is said to have degrees from Brown University, Stanford and Emory – is hardly typical of the majority of adventurers that turn up with ambitions of commercial return.


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